By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
May 7, 2011
For as long as he could remember, Jordan Page had dreamed of becoming a rock star, but the harder he strummed and the louder he sang his music, the more distant his goal seemed.
Then the Annapolis resident had the dream.
One night four years ago, he woke up suddenly, the lyrics to a new song pouring forth in his mind. He scribbled them down while strumming his guitar: I heard voices that claimed to be moral and righteous/Whose lies and deceit were all dark and contagious/I heard talk of a country that valued its freedom/ But when I protested I was arrested and beaten.
Before long he had completed "The Pendulum," a political screed he has been showcasing on national tours ever since.
"I went from being a person who couldn't care less [about politics] to someone who's all in" in the fight to preserve liberty in America, "and it totally changed my approach," he told an intimate audience at the Austin Grill in the Westfield mall on Tuesday night.
Page, 31, was one of two guest performers at last week's Showcase of Original Music in Annapolis, or SOMA, a weekly event at the restaurant where area performers are given the uncommon chance (and a few bucks) to perform a full set of their own material, uninterrupted.
"For those of us in the business, it can become a bit of a grind to play show after show of cover music," says Bryan Ewald, a veteran local guitarist who co-hosts the series. "This is a nice opportunity for artists to air out their stuff for an interested audience."
Not every new song, of course, heralds a political awakening. Last week's crowd was treated to the sounds of Jason Ager, a Baltimore-based singer-songwriter who served up a set of clever, scat-flavored alt-pop that left them laughing. The contrast reflected the diversity of the series and a breadth of local talent even long-timers find inspiring.
"We tell [the artists], 'Please come show us what you've got,'" says Meg Murray, Ewald's co-host and a vocalist who has fronted blues-, R&B- and folk-inflected groups in the area over the past 15 years. "We've had men and women, reggae, hip-hop, blues, rockabilly, folk. … Bryan and I have been on the scene for a long time, and every week we learn something new about who's doing what around here."
It has long been said that greater Annapolis plays host to more than its share of bars and clubs that host live music. That has attracted scads of professional players and spawned a scene some say rivals that of indie havens like the real Austin, Texas.
Dozens of those players are serious part-timers; some make it their sole job. One full-timer is Ewald, 39, an Arnold-based husband and dad whose guitar wizardry — "a blend of Clapton prowess and Harrison uniqueness," in the words of Bay Weekly reviewer Matthew Pugh — has made him "one of the best and most prolific players in the area."
Ewald plays at least 250 gigs a year in three different bands, and that inevitably means cranking out a lot of music made famous by more celebrated artists. "You might want to weave in more of your own stuff, but there's always that thing of paying the mortgage," he says.
Most serious players, Ewald says, have original material they'd love to play in public if they had the chance — a fact that opened an opportunity for Austin Grill manager Danielle Scott, who decided about a year ago to try to get the eatery on the region's crowded musical map.
She asked Ewald to use his contacts to get it going, and he and Murray, a longtime collaborator, have been running the show since October.
Meg & Bryan, as they're known locally, start each show with a 40-minute set of their own, in part to attract their established fan base. Then they cede the stage to two other acts in a show that generally ends by the family-friendly hour of 10. Bookings have featured once-popular bands that have cut back their schedules, breakthrough shows for younger artists or solos or acts just looking to network and have fun.
With free admission nearly most weeks, crowds have averaged between 40 and 50 — not bad, Ewald says, for a Tuesday night in a setting that seats 100 and sits far from the artsier climes of downtown.
The series has bridged old and new, showcasing the work of rockabilly veteran Dean Rosenthal of Annapolis; the ethereal, Baltimore-based folk-rock act Naked Blue, and Jill and Don Davolio of Millersville, whose high-energy rock band, Gingham Shmuz, spent a decade opening for the likes of Keb Mo, the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers before family life intervened.
But Ewald and Murray have also booked a who's who of younger artists: Brandon Hardesty, 25, an Annapolis resident who fronts the Bumpin Uglies; the Carousel Rogues, indie rockers from Frederick; and others. On May 24, they trot out the progressive-acoustic Walking Sticks, a band featuring twin brothers (and College Park students) Max and Spencer Ernst of Silver Spring that has already won a following in the region.
"The generation of fans I know aren't familiar with these musicians," Ewald says. "It's a chance for them to hear someone who, if not necessarily the next national thing, might be the next generation of what this area has to offer."
Riffs and revolution
The emcees take the stage at 7, Ewald lugging his lovingly worn Martin guitar.
A big-screen TV looms behind them, and promotional Corona posters flank the stage, signs of the venue's chain-eatery ambience. But once the veteran players start their act, things couldn't feel more personal.
Thumping out a rhythm, then framing Murray's bluesy voice with a sequence of jazz chords, Ewald lays the foundation for a loopy "Acoustic Trance," a sad-relationship number by Murray called "The Words," even a disco-flavored piece called "Get By" on which the guitarist uses a looper pedal to unfurl a "Saturday Night Fever"-style beat and a wah-wah solo.
The songs date back as far as 1996, when the two started performing together, but have as fresh a feel as the pair's onstage humor.
"Do you know why you have to be musically inclined to cross the street?" Ewald asks after he and Murray improvise a country song on the spot, including lyrics. "Because you have to C-Sharp, or you'll B-flat."
"He's the joke-teller; I'm the laugher," Murray says.
Then Page steps up, his black T-shirt and shaved head asserting his presence with all the nuance of a Sonic Youth power chord.
"I'm going to play a few songs that have changed the course of my destiny," he says with a smile, hands atop his cutaway acoustic guitar. "They might make you feel good. They might [tick] you off. Either way is good."
He starts with "The Pendulum," the tune that came to him in 2006. He didn't understand the lyrics as he wrote them, he says, but as he pondered them after the fact, he realized he'd framed a purpose in life — not to sing about relationships and himself, but to warn listeners of something far more important: their ongoing loss of liberty at the hands of a vast, dishonest government.
Since then, the songs have poured out of him, says Page, who has put out two recent CDs, appeared on XM Radio and performs regularly at rallies for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the Constitutionalist Republican candidate for president whose T-shirt he happens to be wearing.
"I'll sing a new song about civilization," he sings at a volume that all but rattles the windows "and the palace of wisdom and the death of a nation," and by the time his 40-minute set is done, you're ready to stock up on gold, guns and ammo.
It's a small but attentive crowd tonight, about 20 people altogether. One member is fellow musician Ager, 29, a Philadelphia native who has been listening intently while nursing a drink at the bar.
A doctoral student in German who speaks off-the-cuff about languages, the year he spent in Austria as a Fulbright scholar and the dynamics of teaching, Ager comes across as a quiet, philosophical sort.
Then he takes the stage.
If music made Page an activist, it turns Ager into a showman — a scratchy-voiced storyteller with a twinkle in his eye.
"It's cool playing [on the bill] with Jordan tonight," says Ager, who has just met Page. "He's serious, and I'm kind of jokey. It adds some spice, know what I'm sayin'?"
With a few bold "chunks" on his acoustic guitar, he lays down a funky blues shuffle, and in a voice that echoes the sounds of joyful funk-folksters Jack Johnson and fellow Philadelphian G Love, he unleashes a string of songs on everything from hefty women and meaty foods ("Close To The Bone") to underage drinking parties ("The Indian") and the joys of surfing.
"People askin' me, what it feels like," he croons in one tune, "standin' on the stage, in the spotlight. / I tell 'em it's like fishin', gotta keep 'em on the line, / gotta get the hook in, once they take a little bite." And by the end of that song, "The Fishin' Jawn," his crowd of listeners have the air of so many wiggling trout eager to jump in the boat.
Fans new and old can hear Ager's music live at his semi-regular dates at places like Teavolve in Baltimore's Harbor East or 49 West in Annapolis, where he shares a monthly bill with the D.C. performer Justin Trawick, not to mention sampling it on his website, his MySpace page or YouTube videos.
As he wraps his set, the audience demands an encore — but one listener, late for an engagement, tries to slip out unnoticed.
"You're gonna do me like that, huh?" Ager says at the mike. "I'll remember you — the guy in the blue-striped shirt. Nah, get home safe, hear?" and the man laughs as he exits.
Page is impressed. "I'm intense. I need to be more fun," he says, smiling at his table.
"And I ain't serious enough," Ager says later. "For me, music is celebration. I can't help it."
As the show comes to an end, the emcees are pleased with how things went.
Part of SOMA's charm, they say, is that as working musicians, they rarely get a chance to see what their counterparts are up to, and Tuesday nights have yet to disappoint them.
Ewald compares Page's voice to that of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Murray chuckles at the cleverness of Ager's lyrics.
A smiling Page claps the co-hosts on the back — "these two are music royalty in Annapolis," he says — and he gives Ager an admiring handshake, hands out copies of his latest CD, "Liberty," and talks a little politics.
"Americans are in for a tough road the next couple of years," says Page, who was to headline a rally for Republican presidential candidates in Greenville, S.C., including Paul, a few days later. "Our liberties are disappearing fast. But tell another person. Tell 50 people. Educate. That's what we can do."
Ager, his plaid shirt stained with perspiration, grins as he tosses copies of "Lunchtime," the latest CD by his band, "Jason Ager & The C.O.P.O.," to anybody who wants one, and he stuffs a copy of Page's disk into his bag.
The German scholar-cum-acoustic troubadour clearly trains his smarts on enjoying the quirks of life — and the chance to write and sing about them.
"Life throws you curveballs, that's for sure," he says. "Will I be doing this 10 years from now? I don't know. I hope so. I know I'll be doing it till no one wants to hear me anymore."
If you go
What: Showcase of Original Music, Annapolis (SOMA), a regular evening featuring original music by local performers
When: Tuesdays, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
Where: The Austin Grill, Westfield Annapolis Mall, 2002 Annapolis Mall
Information: facebook.com/SOMAwithMegandBryan or (410) 571-6688
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